Federal Government Preparing for Impacts of Space Weather and Electromagnetic Pulses

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Publication date: 
1 June 2016

Two low-probability but high-impact events—massive solar storms and human-caused electromagnetic pulses—have recently climbed higher on the list of policymaker concerns about threats to critical infrastructure, resulting in the White House releasing a National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan and Congress considering bills on both subjects.

Two distinct but overlapping phenomena have recently attracted increasing attention from policymakers: space weather caused by solar flares and electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) created by human devices such as nuclear weapons detonated at high altitudes. The main similarity between space weather and EMPs is that both can induce damaging currents in long, conducting lines—namely the electric grid, communications lines, and pipelines. Both can also interrupt or damage other physical systems and can harm biological organisms, although via different mechanisms.

These impacts have long been known, and the world’s dependence on susceptible technologies has increased over time. Yet outside of defense-focused EMP research and hardening of certain military systems during the Cold War, efforts to assess and mitigate space weather and EMP threats to civilian infrastructure are relatively nascent. Policymakers are now pushing for enhanced research and preparedness efforts in this domain.

For space weather, the White House National Space Weather Strategy and its accompanying Action Plan—both released by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in Oct. 2015—and the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act”—approved by a Senate committee in April 2016—represent the two main efforts to coordinate and codify the federal government’s space weather research and preparedness activities. For both space weather and EMPs, the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act”—which the House passed in Nov. 2015 and a Senate committee approved with some differences in May 2016—and several provisions in other bills which recently became law comprise Congress’ primary recent efforts to enhance preparedness to both phenomena.

White House focuses on space weather

“This topic is very important to President Obama, the country, and me personally,” said Tamara Dickinson, Principal Assistant Director for Environment and Energy at OSTP, during her keynote speech at a March event which convened space weather experts from across the government and the country to discuss recent progress in enhancing preparedness to space weather impacts. (Slides from all of the speakers are available here.)

William Murtagh, OSTP’s Assistant Director for Space Weather, explains the National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. Seated left to right are Therese Jorgensen, head of the National Science Foundation’s Geospace Sciences Section; Steven Clarke, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division; Thomas Berger, director of the Space Weather Prediction Center; and Devrie Intriligator, a representative of the American Commercial Space Weather Association. (Photo credit – Universities Space Research Association)

The event, hosted by the Universities Space Research Association and George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, also served as a forum for discussing progress to date in implementing the White House’s National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan. Together, these documents provide an extensive tasking to federal agencies with a role in space weather research, forecasting, and preparedness and set six high level goals: establish benchmarks for space-weather events, enhance response and recovery capabilities, improve protection and mitigation efforts, improve assessment of impacts on critical infrastructure, improve space-weather services, and increase international cooperation.

The first major recognition of the harmful effects of space weather on technological systems came over 150 years ago when a huge solar storm, named the “Carrington Event,” set fire to telegraph stations and produced auroras visible in tropical latitudes. Since then, there have been a few powerful solar storms which had significant impacts—such as a 1989 storm which caused a nine-hour power outage in Quebec. Most recently, a 2012 solar storm with a magnitude comparable to the Carrington Event narrowly missed the Earth.

Some predict that there is roughly a 6 to 12 percent chance that a similar storm will strike the Earth in the next 10 years. Furthermore, a 2013 report by Lloyds estimated that such a storm could leave 20 to 40 million people without power for 16 days to two years, costing $0.6 to $2.6 trillion. Dickinson cited the high likelihood of another Carrington-class storm hitting the Earth and the Lloyds impact assessment as two factors which grabbed the White House’s attention.

OSTP Assistant Director for Space Weather William Murtagh summarized the origins of the White House effort in one sentence: “If there’s one piece that motivated the White House to make a national strategy on space weather,” he said, it is that a power outage lasting months or even years “affects our ability to govern a country.”

Murtagh also emphasized that the first goal of the strategy, which involves developing benchmarks for the physical characteristics of a “1-in-100 year” storm as well as the theoretical maximum strength storm, is fundamental to all the other efforts and an especially important input to infrastructure vulnerability assessments. He noted that for natural phenomena such as hurricanes, we know that 2,000 mile per hour winds are not possible. In contrast, scientists do not yet have a good understanding of the theoretical intensity limits of space weather events.

Congress emphasizes EMPs, but has growing recognition of space weather similarities

Over the past two decades, some lawmakers—particularly in the House—have been vocal with their concerns about EMPs. Congress started to hold open hearings on EMPs in the late 1990s, and in 2000 established a Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack due to concerns about terrorists and/or rogue nations such as North Korea acquiring EMP capabilities.

Although similarities between the effects of space weather and EMPs were recognized early on, the two phenomena have not been explicitly linked in legislation until recently. In particular, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act reestablished the EMP Commission and expanded its focus to include space weather, and a separate act granted the Secretary of Energy authority to take emergency actions to protect the electric grid in response to events including EMPs and geomagnetic storms caused by space weather.

In the current Congress, the House and Senate “Critical Infrastructure Protection Acts,” sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), both direct the Department of Homeland Security to conduct research and development to mitigate the consequences of EMPs and geomagnetic storms caused by space weather. In addition, the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act” sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is the first bill introduced in Congress which focuses specifically on space weather. The bill is meant to build off of the White House strategy and action plan by codifying agency roles and responsibilities in this domain.

Together, these bills represent a growing recognition by Congress that space weather is a subject worthy of concern alongside its longstanding preoccupation with EMPs.

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